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Raising Our Children Jewish in Our Interfaith Family

How do you prepare in advance to raise your child as a Jew when only one parent is Jewish? How do you emulate your own upbringing when you and your spouse are not going to be able to play the same roles your parents did for you? These are only a few of the many questions that rolled through my head when Bill and I decided to get married. We knew we would eventually want children, and Bill had agreed that, although he was not Jewish, our children would be. Although I tried to put on a confident face to all who questioned the religious upbringing of our future children, I didn't feel that way inside.

There were two things, though, that I did know. First, I did not want to overcompensate for a non-Jewish spouse by becoming more observant than I already was (somewhere between Reform and Conservative). Also, a book called Mixed Blessings by Paul and Rachel Cowan reminded me that each parent brings important and unique qualities and strengths to the life of a family. We choose our partners because of what is special about them, and those special qualities are then passed on to the family as a whole, and to each child. Bill wasn't Jewish, but he was many other wonderful things, and our children would learn those things from him. Realizing that while I could teach my children Judaism, my husband would teach them many other valuable things made my responsibility feel like a gift, rather than an overwhelming task.

With this new perspective in mind, I realized that with a little effort and minimal lifestyle changes, I could help create our own Jewish home before we even had children. The first thing we did was to join a synagogue. I had never gone to services on a regular basis (something my Catholic-born husband has always had a hard time understanding), and did not plan to start now. However, I felt that it was important for us to start establishing our own Jewish roots, so that when holidays arrived and a baby naming and/or bris (ritual circumcision) was needed, we would know where we belonged. Additionally, as I had always felt very much at home in my synagogue growing up, I knew that I wanted to pass this same feeling on to our children.

We also decided to start establishing our own Jewish rituals. An example of this is Shabbat, the Sabbath. Bill loved the idea of Shabbat--the opportunity to come home after a long week of work, light candles, recite blessings, eat a delicious meal, and spend the evening with family. No chores, no big decisions, only a relaxing evening with loved ones. So we started doing this every Friday night. Now that we have children, we also sing Shabbat songs, which we learned from my sister and her family.

I believe that both Bill and I were already upholding important tenets of Judaism by living our lives as ethical and moral people. We both realized the innate importance of values such as kindness, charity, and good deeds, and hoped that the friends we would make once we had children would have similar belief systems and would teach these same values to their children.

By doing these, and other simple yet important things--such as learning more about all the Jewish holidays and hosting Yom Kippur break fasts--Bill and I were able to infuse our home and lives with Judaism. Once we had children, we did not have to make changes that felt forced or unnatural. Our daughter loves Shabbat: she can sing the blessings as well as I (and now Bill) can, and knows that the evening will be a time for family and celebration. I can comfortably take our daughter to play groups at the synagogue, or to a Tot Shabbat class there, because we are members. Again, we don't go on a regular basis, but my daughter knows the rabbi, and often asks when we can go see him again. We enjoy getting together with many of our temple friends to celebrate holidays, and our children look forward to seeing each other when we have dessert in the sukkah (wooden hut put up during the holiday of Sukkot) or when we light the Hanukkah menorah.

This past fall my daughter Samantha, who was three and a half then, her little brother Daniel, and I, went for a walk in the neighborhood. We noticed that a friend's dog (Molly) was loose, and far from home. We coaxed the dog back home, much to the relief of her owners. Without even realizing what an excellent Jewish lesson this would be for Samantha, I said, "Laura seemed really relieved to have Molly home, don't you think?" Samantha replied, "Yup, we did a mitzvah (a commandment or good deed) didn't we, Mommy?" An answer to melt a Jewish mother's heart.

Hebrew for "Day of Atonement," the final of ten Days of Awe that begin with Rosh Hashanah. Occurs during the fall and is marked by a 24-hour fast. One of the most important Jewish holidays. Derived from the Greek word for "assembly," a Jewish house of prayer. Synagogue refers to both the room where prayer services are held and the building where it occurs. In Yiddish, "shul." Reform synagogues are often called "temple." Hanukkah (known by many spellings) is an eight-day Jewish holiday commemorating the rededication of the Second Temple in Jerusalem at the time of the Maccabean Revolt of the 2nd Century BCE. It is marked by the lighting of a menorah and the eating of fried foods. Hebrew for "candelabrum" or "lamp," it usually refers to the nine-branched candelabrum that is lit for the holiday of Hanukkah. (A seven-branched candelabrum, a symbol of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem, is a symbol of Judaism and is included in Israel's coat of arms.) Hebrew for "commandment," it has two meanings. The first are the commandments given in the Torah. ("You should obey the mitzvah of honoring your parents!") The second is a good deed. ("Helping her carry her groceries home was such a mitzvah!") The Jewish Sabbath, from sunset on Friday to nightfall on Saturday. Hebrew for "booth," a temporary hut constructed for use during the week-long Jewish holiday of Sukkot ("booths"). Hebrew for "Booths," it's a fall holiday marking the harvest, like a Jewish Thanksgiving, complete with opportunities for dining and sleeping under the stars. Reform synagogues are often called "temple." "The Temple" refers to either the First Temple, built by King Solomon in 957 BCE in Jerusalem, or the Second Temple, which replaced the First Temple and stood on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem from 516 BCE to 70 CE. Hebrew for "my master," the term refers to a spiritual leader and teacher of Torah. Often, but not always, a rabbi is the leader of a synagogue congregation. Hebrew for "covenant," often referring to the ritual for Jewish boys when they are 8 days old ("brit milah" - "covenant of circumcision"). It is commonly known as "bris," which is the Ashkenazi or Yiddish pronunciation of "brit."
Staci Kennedy

Staci Kennedy is a clinical social worker living in Ann Arbor, Mich. She is married to Bill and has two children, Samantha and Daniel.

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